The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. [p. 78–79]
Their attraction lies in this, that they at once express both the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit. They fall short of tragedy only in that they provide no solution, offer no scapegoat but the self. [p. 94]
—Ralph Ellison, “Richard Wright’s Blues,” from The Antioch Review (Summer 1945); reprinted in Shadow and Act (1964)
These are practically the only remarks concerning blues music in Ellison’s review, but they get quoted together, as if the article was only about blues music. Frankly, I follow Ellison best in the places where he discusses music, so I also ignored the rest of the article.
Ellison’s nonfiction writing is full of literary and cultural references that mean nothing to me, not to mention his occasional use of ideas from sociology, Freudian psychology, and Marxist philosophy. I don’t feel like I have to get all of those references in order to pull something helpful from his writing. His descriptions of blues music have been helpful for me in understanding it conceptually.
In particular, I have had trouble explaining blues music to some white people. They say, “Oh, I don’t like listening to sad music,” “That’s like jazz, isn’t it?” or “It’s like all the rest of that twangy music.” I’m stunned.
For years, it had never really occurred to me that some white people don’t know what blues music is. I mean, blues rock from artists such as Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, George Thorogood, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jonny Lang, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd has been all over pop radio for the last 30 years, but some people just slept through it. They mark American music history with Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Donny and Marie Osmond, Elton John, Donna Summer, Barry Manilow, and the Bee Gees; and then they dismiss all the rest as punk/heavy metal/rap/grunge. Give me a break.
I don’t want to sound like I have sophisticated musical tastes, because I don’t. It’s obviously just that certain rhythms stood out to me from pop music, and I sought out more of the same, and other people I know find that to be really strange.